Ernest Henry Wilson and the Cherry Blossoms of Japan

March 10, 2014

wilson cherry blossom

Ernest Henry Wilson and the Cherry Blossoms of Japan

As a long and very chilly winter hopefully draws to a close, we can but think upon the flowers of spring and especially the flowers of the genus Prunus (cherry). We hold a significant collection of photographs of these beautiful trees taken by Ernest Henry Wilson during his 1914 expedition to Japan, as well as his correspondence with his colleagues back at the Arboretum.

E. H. Wilson (1876-1930) was the furthest traveled of all the Arnold Arboretum plant explorers of the early twentieth century. Engaged by Charles S. Sargent in 1906, he made two trips to China between 1907 and 1911. Japan was selected as his destination in 1914, and his wife Helen and daughter Muriel Primrose accompanied him. On this trip, he focused his study on native forests, cultivated plants, and horticultural practices, using Japan’s well-developed railroad system to assist his exploration. Special attention was directed to the Japanese flowering cherries and learning more about Kurume azaleas, which he saw in a nursery in the Angyo district of Kawaguchi. He was also determined, in Sargent’s words, “to solve some of the problems which have long puzzled the students of Japanese conifers.”

Wilson and his family arrived in Japan in February 1914. After a trip to the far south where he saw forests of huge Cryptomeria, Wilson returned on March 26 and reported in a letter to colleague Alfred Rehder, “The Cherries in and around Tokyo are just beginning to open and there is every promise of a wonderful display of blossom.”

Over the next several weeks Wilson spent time at the Tokyo Botanic Garden and elsewhere studying and photographing trees. In a letter to Rehder on April 14 he wrote, “The problems as to the names these Japanese cherries should bear are far from settled, but at the moment the only thing I am sure of is that the trees now laden with a wealth of blossoms are wondrously beautiful.”

Wilson traveled to Mt. Fuji over the next few days where he found the “cherries very abundant,” and on April 20, he visited a place in the vicinity of Tokyo where he found eighty double-flowered varieties growing.

By the beginning of May, the constant travel and overabundance of flowering cherries had begun to wear on our intrepid explorer, who complained to Alfred Rehder that “the cherry season is now over and I am really glad, strange as it may seem. I have chased them far and near, and feel rather exhausted! I have stacks and stacks of specimens and the knots of the problems are nearly all loose.”

He might have been left with many unanswered questions about the origins of flowering cherries, but we are fortunate to have 619 photographs from this expedition in the Archives of the Arnold Arboretum, nearly 90 of which depict the genus Prunus. All of them have been digitized and are available on VIA.

Lisa Pearson, Head of Library and Archives

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